Q: Our 17-year-old son is an unmotivated student. A junior in high school, he is capable of making straight As, but typically makes Bs and Cs. He plays on the football and tennis teams, but he is a standout at neither. He thinks kids who use drugs and play video games are “stupid” and his friends are all good kids, most of whom make better grades. He’s polite, well-mannered and respectful. Other adults rave about what an impressive kid he is. Meanwhile, we’re pulling our hair out. We’ve told him many times that his grades are eliminating lots of college options, but it’s in one ear, out the other. We’ve taken away his driving privileges, his cellphone (he doesn’t have a smartphone) and even threatened to cancel his summer camp program, which he loves, but these wake-up calls fail to wake him up. Any suggestions?
A: My policy concerning situations of this sort is to leave well enough alone. Your son is doing well enough in school. He isn’t attracted to the wrong crowd. He eschews both chemical and electronic drugs. He plays sports. He’s not cutting himself or breaking the law. He is giving you no serious problems. He’s giving himself a problem, and someday he’s going to have to confront that problem, and that will be the wake-up call you’re looking for. At that point, he will have to figure out how to deal with going to a second-tier college. If he’s as smart as you say he is, then there’s every reason to believe he will figure out how to make lemonade out of lemons.
You, like most of today’s parents, are stressed over a problem that parents of 60 years ago would have responded to with a shrug. But then, that was when parents weren’t “involved.” They allowed their children the freedom to fail, which is the most valuable and instructive freedom of all. They realized that the greatest of all instructors was life itself.
You’re not getting it, obviously. You’ve done your best. There’s nothing more you can do. Stop stressing yourselves out by trying to find the magic motivational elixir — the right words, the right consequence — that is going to cause your son to come home one day and exclaim, “Mom! Dad! I finally figured it out. I’m going to be a good if not great student from this day forth. Mark it down on the calendar as the day I turned my life around. Oh, happy day!”
It’s not going to happen, not any time soon. Furthermore, my experience leads me to believe that the more you try to fix the problem, the more blasé he will become concerning the problem.
Today’s parents tend to fixate on their kids’ grades, but grades are not the final measure of a young person. Character is. In that regard, your son’s grades may be slack, but his character is anything but. Congratulations!
Leave well enough alone. Stop yanking your hair out. Back off. Enjoy your last couple of years with your son. Put the ball in his court and celebrate. After all, you’ve obviously done a good job. It’s his responsibility to do the rest.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website, Rosemond.com.
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